How Final Fantasy VII Remake legitimizes sexuality and gender identity
In Final Fantasy VII, spiky-haired protagonist Cloud Strife fights countless battles. But when he arrives in the red-light district called Wall Market, he faces what might be his greatest challenge: cross-dressing. To rescue his childhood friend and ally Tifa Lockhart from a seedy old slumlord, Cloud infiltrates an adults-only establishment called the Honey Bee Inn. The catch: to get to her, he must go undercover as a woman.
In the original 1997 version of FFVII, Cloud’s drag transformation is played for laughs. Undertones of queer panic and derision punctuate nearly every character interaction while he’s dressed in a frilly, lavender frock. The audience is supposed to guffaw at this warrior clad in women’s clothing, tamping down any inherent issues of sexual identity and expression that could be attached to the scene. Final Fantasy VII, while heartfelt, dramatic, and in many ways beautiful, was never what could be interpreted as “in tune” with its sexual side.
Nearly 25 years later, Final Fantasy VII Remake flipped the script. A narrative that was once eager to mock Cloud’s dalliances in drag, and which turned a blind eye to the sexual implications of the situation, has morphed. In Remake, this scene blossoms into a brilliant and daring piece of media that encourages the exploration and freedom of one’s sexual identity. It also legitimizes both the cisgender and queer desires that certain characters harbor.
That doesn’t mean Final Fantasy VII Remake has added explicit sex scenes in the vein of The Witcher 3 or that it needed more mature content in the first place. But now, instead of pointing and laughing at Cloud in a dress or pretending its heroines are too innocent to go after what they want, Final Fantasy VII Remake paves the way for more sexual awakenings. Though plenty of games that came after Final Fantasy VII were quick to add in this type of content, it’s refreshing to see a classic coming around in this fashion, even if it took an agonizingly long time.
A classy kind of brothel
The remake’s greatest change in this regard happens in the Honey Bee Inn itself. The locale has been retconned significantly, doing away with the outdated, seedy vision of what society believes a brothel should be. The Inn is now a sophisticated nightclub meant only for VIPs, operating under the watchful eye of Andrea Rhodea, a flamboyant, queer-coded man with a flair for the dramatic. The staff, clad in racy bee costumes, puts on elaborate dance numbers nightly, and Rhodea ends up challenging Cloud to a dance-off in return for a makeover that will enable Cloud to go after Tifa.
Rhodea is immediately flirtatious with Cloud as he leads the soldier onto a brand-new battlefield: the dance floor. Incredibly, Cloud engages in a raunchy dance-off with Rhodea to a bombastic EDM number. The two bob and weave inches away from each other, bodies pulsating and shimmying to the beat. They move effortlessly in sync, Cloud shaking his rump and running calloused hands along his body just as Rhodea does across from him.
It’s a sexually charged scene unlike anything we’ve seen from the Final Fantasy series to this point. Before you ever see him in a dress, it becomes clear that this version of Cloud is willing and unafraid to bust out of his comfort zone to explore the pleasures that the Honey Bee Inn has to offer.
They don’t see a man in a dress to point and laugh at. He’s just hot, and everyone knows it.
Following the jaw-dropping scene, we’re treated to a montage of enthusiastic staff working their magic on Cloud, applying a full face of makeup and what appear to be hair extensions, giving him a flaxen mullet with braids. “You were born for this,” an attendant tells Cloud, who is clad in a gorgeous dress, before revealing him to the audience in attendance. Companion Aerith Gainsborough, who is front and center for the show, claps her hands and stares at Cloud in awe. She’s practically breathless.
Rhodea twirls Cloud around in a series of waltz-like moves, remarking that, when it comes to true beauty, gender doesn’t apply. Cloud is left to play the traditionally “feminine” role here, held a hair’s breadth from Rhodea’s face. In this moment, Cloud isn’t a punchline to some elaborate setup. He’s a showstopper, decked out in the finest garments Wall Market has to offer and oozing effortless sexuality. He’s a bombshell. For once, Final Fantasy subtly indicates that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with exploring that, even if Cloud is still coming to terms with this newfound side of himself.
Upon exiting the Honey Bee Inn, the citizens of Midgar are surprisingly open-minded and appreciative of Cloud’s appearance. They don’t see a man in a dress to point and laugh at. He’s just hot, and everyone knows it.
In contrast to the original game, the message here is much more empowering: you can be yourself and express your sexuality and gender identity any way you like, and that doesn’t make you a joke. It’s a scene that feels impossible to walk away from without feeling empowered to go out and be the best version of yourself, regardless of your sexuality or gender identity.
Madam M and Ms. Rasberry
The remake’s changes come through clearly in other character interactions as well. Take Madam M, one of a trio of advisors to the slumlord Cloud is seeking while dressed as a woman. She runs a Wall Market massage parlor while moonlighting as a judge at the Corneo Colosseum fight club, where she helps enlist Cloud and Aerith to afford a makeover for the flower girl to the tune of 1,000,000 gil. Her main bread and butter, however, is hand massages—the kind that have you howling with pleasure (or pain, if you don’t pay the prices she commands for a good one.)
Madam M’s hand massages, while outwardly innocuous, are obviously meant as sexual innuendo. It’s a brash move from the developers, poking fun at the idea of this savvy and brash Madam being a sex worker. She’s portrayed as a whip-smart, shrewd businesswoman and nothing less than a reputable titan of her industry. She commands respect from the two men that round out the Don Corneo trio and strikes fear into the hearts of clients who don’t pay (while her paying clients always end up satisfied).
It’s an important message that society would do well to internalize today: sex work is real work. Madam M may or may not be performing additional services beyond simple massages, but what she does provide is obviously a joking analogue that gives the audience permission to laugh while taking in the larger point. She’s a boss with a highly specialized trade, nothing more. Most importantly, she knows what she’s worth.
This appreciation for sexuality and outspoken women extends to Jessie Rasberry. In her limited role in the PlayStation original, Jessie is permitted to flirt openly with Cloud, making it clear she harbors feelings for the new Avalanche recruit. In the remake, though, Jessie’s character has room to breathe as an effervescent young woman. She makes her intentions known at every possible turn: unashamed, unbothered, and unafraid of what others may think, in stark comparison to the narrative that women should be quiet and demure. So many JRPG protagonists are shy, skittish heroines who get flustered over holding hands. Jessie, on the other hand, isn’t afraid to show that she wants to get physical with Cloud.
Cloud jokingly refers to Jessie as “desperate” for repeatedly asking him over to her place. When they return to Jessie’s home in the slums and Cloud declines to stay the night, Jessie tries to get him to agree to come back the next night. It’s heavily implied that, in addition to “making a mean pizza,” she’s interested in getting closer to Cloud, noting that her roommates should all be out for “a while.”
Despite the object of her affections’ icy reception, Jessie remains undeterred. She repeatedly makes advances toward Cloud throughout the entirety of the game, never pausing to wonder what the other travelers think of her crush. She’s set her sights on the guy she wants, and she’s going after him. It’s refreshing to see a woman pursue a romantic interest with such “masculine” persistence, even when rebuffed several times over. Jessie’s a woman who’s afraid of being seen as a damsel in distress, even if she’s hurting. It’s a telling character trait, but it ends up being an empowering one as well.
Will they or won’t they?
Then there’s the complicated relationship between Cloud and Tifa. Within the love quadrilateral quietly brewing among Cloud, Tifa, Aerith, and Jessie throughout Final Fantasy VII Remake, none of the relationships feel as immediate as the one between Tifa and Cloud.
Tifa never misses the chance to remind Cloud that he promised as a child to come save her if she were ever in trouble. The remake version of Cloud happily obliges her when she brings this up, treating Tifa with a kind of tenderness that wasn’t seen in the original game (save for a few quiet scenes).
This implies strong feelings between the two that have never been made more explicit, and it helps make the pair’s relationship feel more mature than ever.
In the remake, there’s an undercurrent of burgeoning sexual tension between the pair that was barely allowed to shine through in the original game. Tifa’s body language reflects a young woman yearning for her lover’s physical touch, while Cloud remains reticent. A kiss (or something more) constantly feels like it’s only moments away.
In one scene, the pair shares a room together for a brief moment, Tifa speaking to Cloud from the door of a tiny apartment while he remains completely clothed on a creaky old bed. The desire can practically be felt through the screen. It’s as if Cloud knows he won’t be able to help himself, so he stays on the bed, never making a move toward Tifa.
Several similar moments are woven throughout the remade narrative, many of which Tifa instigates herself. Though she’s not as aggressive as Jessie in her advances, it’s clear Tifa has been given the agency this time around to make sure Cloud knows how she feels. As the remake’s narrative progresses in planned future releases, it seems clear Tifa could make the most of an opportunity to truly act on those feelings, whether that means a night of passion or the kiss fans have been waiting for since viewing the original game’s credits.
The passage of time
With these additions and more strewn throughout Final Fantasy VII Remake, it’s plain to see how the story has grown with its players over the years. There was always room to inject more believable human moments, emotions, and sexuality. Seeing the creators behind this larger-than-life remake project coming to terms with how they could express these changes has been an incredibly gratifying experience, and it’s chock-full of lessons the gaming industry as a whole could learn from.
There’s a constant struggle when it comes to giving video games the space and affirmation they need to explore more adult themes so they can break the “childish toys” image that still hampers the industry. Final Fantasy VII Remake offered more than enough ammunition for the cause. If this is the attitude we can expect from the next installment and going forward, this beloved RPG series looks like it has nowhere to go but up.
Listing image by Square Enix